High-Speed Dreams

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Erik M. Conway. High-Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945-1999. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Pp. xx, 369. Cloth $49.95.

Summary

Contents:

1. Constructing the Supersonic Age

2. Technological Rivalry and the Cold War

3. Engineering the National Champion

4. Of Noise, Jumbos, and SSTs

5. Of Ozone, the Concorde, and SSTs

6. The Airbus, the Orient Express, and the Renaissance of Speed

7. Toward a Green SST

8. Sic Transit HSCT

Eric Conway addresses a critical progress narrative in the aerospace community. For much of the 20th century, technological success in aerospace was defined by higher, faster, farther. The staggeringly rapid pace of improvements in performance in the middle decades of the twentieth century was in part due to overlap of civil and military sectors. WWI combat aircraft yielded pilots and airframes that formed the basis of commercial service. Commercial interwar developments parlayed into military airframe technologies. Post World War II, jet technology transferred readily to the civil sector. In the context of this narrative, Conway charts the attempt to transfer supersonic technologies into a viable supersonic commercial transport. The legacy of this effort that started early in the Cold War is one of significant failure. The United States did not build SSTs, while the Anglo-French Concorde and Soviet efforts entered service, but ultimately showcased the fundamental disconnect between economy, environmental impact and technological imperatives that is at the heart of why the aerospace progress narrative came grindingly to a halt at its period of greatest momentum.

Commentary

Roger D. Connor, Spring, 2012

Conway’s close chronological narrative does an excellent job of demonstrating why supersonic military technology didn’t pay off commercially (it really didn’t payoff for the military either, as the mainstays of strategic bomber forces are still subsonic). Unfortunately, the reader must step back from this institutional and technical study to discern a larger meaning in the failure of American SST programs. Once the reader has sorted through the mind-numbing array of aerodynamic configurations, Conway does provide some interesting, though disparate, insights into the social construction of this technology. Most intriguing is the central role played by Robert McNamara in defining a commercial aircraft initiative. Interestingly, the iconoclast military representative in the form of McNamara is the naysayer to the technological enthusiasm of a series of FAA administrators who arguably should have known better. The enthusiastic origins of the programs are nowhere near as fascinating as how these programs came to live on in political life-support even as their potential manufacturers and operators had become convinced in their inherent unsuitability for turning a profit at either end.

What then, drove the SST past the point of rational discourse? Conway argues that all of the SST programs shared a core of national prestige linked to the notion of national prestige. Indeed, one wonders just how much the greater the pressure for implementation would have been if the space program had not been such an outlet for national pride and consumer of resources. However, Conway also gives us a much more nuanced look at other politicized reasons for embracing the SST, most notably in the form of Nixon’s anti-environmental posturing.

What, then, does this say about war and the state? Conway’s “politics of expansion and dominance” demonstrated a contested discourse that American identity and status is closely tied to technological achievement. The failure of SST, or at least the failure to out-Concorde Concorde, is seen by some as a legitimate acknowledgement of the falseness of such discourse, though others see an implicit threat in the failing of an apparent “truth” of American exceptionalism. These are the same codas evinced by Franklin, Sherry and Clodfelter in their studies of strategic bombing, in which a sense of authority is tied to technological capability. While flying in a 747 (a design now more than 40 years old) does necessarily not speak to technological power of the state as some would have, the fact that only two major commercial airframe manufacturers survive is perhaps an even better narrative of how the past U.S. dominance of emerging technologies poses challenges for national identity and purpose in an era of mature technologies.

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